Passionate but not persuasive

Alistair Moffat Arthur And The Lost Kingdoms Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1999

Thank goodness these “lost” kingdoms are not “holy” kingdoms, as is claimed by conspiracy theorists from southeast Wales! At least we don’t have to suffer a rant about secret histories suppressed by the ignorant English and the arrogant establishment familiar from similar “histories”, “true” stories and “final” discoveries.

Instead, the major part of this book is given over to a study of the area between the Walls, both Antonine and Hadrianic, before, during and after the Roman occupation of Britain. Moffat, a native of the Scottish Border country, sympathetically evokes the Celtic tribes (the Damnonii, Novantae, Selgovae and Votadini) who, squeezed between Gaelic, Pictish and Anglian peoples, forged successor kingdoms in the Dark Ages. He is clearly trying to restore a sense of forgotten history to the Lowland Scots and, several quibbles aside (such as projecting back late and post-medieval lore onto the Iron Age and early medieval period, and a lack of caution over placename evidence), I think he is largely successful.

It is, however, when we come to the association of Arthur with this area that the real problems start. Much is made of the reference to Arthur in the North British poem of The Gododdin, but the critical apparatus expected is mostly missing. Gildas, Nennius and The Welsh Annals are taken largely on trust, with no sense that there are major textual and contextual issues. Unexplained liberties are taken with the translations of these texts – for example, we are offered a version of the Badon Hill reference in the Annals (“in which Arthur destroyed 960 men in a single charge on one day, and no one rode down as he did by himself”) without being told this is not a strictly literal translation but an interpretation bundled up in a paraphrase. Further liberties are taken with the traditional chronology (Arthur’s death occurs “in AD 517”), again without critical discussion.

There are curious omission, too. Moffat talks a lot about Trimontium, the Roman site near the three Eildon Hills, but never appears to mention Sir Walter Scott’s account of the legend of sleeping knights, who may or may not be Arthur’s. There is much discussion about Roxburgh, but nowhere is there mention of Guillaume le Clerc’s early 13th century romance Fergus of Galloway, Knight of King Arthur, much of which is set in this precise region and which just might in part be accounted for by local traditions.

I remain to be convinced, on the basis of this work, that an early medieval warrior called Arthur was exclusively located in lowland Scotland, let alone Wales, Cornwall or any other area. If I was to take a position on the origin of the legends it would be as a pluralist, and, despite the author’s undoubted passion, this book in no way shakes that viewpoint.

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6 thoughts on “Passionate but not persuasive

  1. I’m with you there. I’m always worried when people want to place Arthur in their own back yard, for a start. I understand – I really understand – the need to make one’s homeland a special place, but this approach isn’t hugely helpful to an historical understanding.

    1. This habit of wanting to place Arthur in one’s own backyard is all too pervasive, with parochial Arthurs turning up in Cornwall, the West Country, southeast Wales, southwest Wales, Gwynedd, the Marches, West Scotland, the Borders and all points between. They can’t all be genuine, and it’s tempting to think that not one actually is. But maybe to do so would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater…

      Thanks for commenting, Esmeralda, and I do hope you find other posts of interest!

    1. I’m afraid I’m a bit rusty with it all now as the bulk of my reading up was done in the 70s through to the early 90s since when I’ve rather coasted. But thanks anyway!

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